One of the ideas being sent up as a test balloon to solve the perceived crisis with Social Security Insurance is to extend the retirement age to 70. Besides the fact that we are the most overworked industrial nation in the world, and suffer many physical and mental health issues related to unnecessary work stress, this farce is counter-productive to getting people back to work, causes losses in overall measurable productivity, and could be detrimental to business and public sector endeavors.
To illustrate the first point, how raising the retirement age will clog up employment opportunities, let’s look at an elementary school teacher who is now 55. We will refer to her as Ms. Hopplebopple (Didn’t everyone have a teacher named Hopplebopple?). Ms. Hopplebopple celebrated her golden birthday in February of 2006. She is getting herself ready for retirement, which will be in June of 2021 because Ms. Hopplebopple would never quit on her third grade class before the completion of the current school year. Then, along comes a bunch of Tea Party-imprisoned Republicans who decide that one way to fix Social Security is to force Ms. Hopplebopple to work until June of 2026.
Now cut to Whatsamatter U where a new class of thirty freshly licensed teachers are throwing their caps in the air and enjoying graduation day as the class of 2021. These are the new generation of teachers, but now there are less opportunities for them because Ms. Hopplebopple and others like her born in 1956 have to work an extra five years. As a reminder, 2011 marks the first year those coincidentally born roughly nine months after either V-E Day or V-J Day are scheduled to retire.
Complicating an already tight job market is that in 2021 we will still be in the midst of baby-boomers retiring. General sociological consensus is that the baby boom ended in 1964. Therefore, at the current retirement age of 65, it will not be until after 2029 when the last boomers complete their employment obligation to society. Tack on an extra five years and now we are pushing the overcrowded job market until 2034. Meanwhile, the graduating class of 2021 is struggling to secure meaningful employment in their chosen career paths.
The second point, loss of productivity, can be easily explained by one simple fact most people over 30 do not want to hear. No matter how hard you try and no matter how many cool items you digest from GNC, nature slows you down as the chronological number goes up. Some slow down later than others, but aging is merely a biological truth. Otherwise, Wayne Gretzky could still be scoring 100 points a season, even for the Florida Panthers. If your workforce is modestly on the gray side, any business or public institution may not be as productive. Push that workforce up to really noticeable gray and you are now looking at productivity issues that have serious economic impact on that firm. From a public institution perspective, Ms. Hopplebopple, with all her tireless dedication, is finding it harder to keep up with the students in her class. No matter how young or old she is, every year her students are only nine or ten years old. Not faulting her, but if Ms. Hopplebopple is finding it more difficult every year to maintain classroom management, what level of education is her classroom achieving?
The final point is that forcing people to work longer means that companies would have to keep people on their payroll longer, even when those folks productivity is declining. Otherwise, those firms are in violation of age discrimination laws. Normally, this writer would rant against the heartless and despicably inhuman the corporate culture is in America. But, for this scenario, a fair assessment from their perspective shall be entertained. To provide context, we can examine the hypothetical auto insurance company Nation Farm State Lizard Co (NFSLC for short) and their manager for district nine, Flo Gecko. We will make the leap that NFSLC is a fair and respectable employer (remember, we are not talking about a health insurance company) but a profit-driven company nonetheless.
Ms. Gecko’s top field agent, Justin Case, has been with the company since one month before his 24th birthday. Mr. Case is now 64 and while he is still a dedicated agent, his numbers have slipped over the past few years. Since Mr. Case does meet minimum sales obligations and has loyal repeat clients, NFSLC will keep him on until his rightful age of retirement, 65, if for no other reason than maintaining good public relations. Mandate and extra five years and now Ms. Gecko and NFSLC are put in the unenviable predicament of possibly having to let Mr. Case go, which in turn, may lead to possible lawsuits and Department of Labor and Industry complaints, not to mention the negative publicity for cutting off one of their most dedicated and popular agents six years short of retirement.
However, keeping Mr. Case on means that NFSLC accepts the loss of revenue for the next six years because Mr. Case cannot keep up the hectic pace of auto insurance sales. In this instance, our hypothetical company was deemed employee friendly. How many real life corporations would be so kind?
Age discrimination laws are practical civil rights protection for those hard working Americans who have lost a little spring in their step. In reality, these same laws are very difficult to prosecute in open court. Companies have teams of lawyers to find alternative justifications to fire employees who have reached a certain age, usually before pension benefits come due. No matter how diligent an unemployed 50-year-old tries to protect his or her privacy with concern to age, the bottom line is that the interview process is the ultimate tell-tale with no recourse. There is a very distinct possibility that candidates over the age of 45 will not be able to secure decent employment. They still have something to offer, are too young to retire, but face unaccountable age discrimination. Allow the retirement age to cap at 70 and you are facing the reality that a good portion of Americans will be denied opportunities based on age and have no real means of income for nearly two decades.
All three scenarios have consequences, because if Americans are not receiving moderately livable salaries, they are not spending to sustain the consumption economy, nor are they contributing to the federal income coffers. For the thirty graduates of Whatsamatter U, this is micro in terms of hard dollars. It becomes macro when considering the total number of potential annual college graduates of all professions that have to deal with an overcrowded job market exasperated with the real possibility of a mandated increase in retirement age. The macro hard dollars become exponentially higher if you include folks like 64 year old Justin Case, because the company could not afford to keep him until the age of 70.
Although this article was written with a light-humored nuance, there is nothing comedic about the short and long term economic impact, along with the humanistic aspect on forcing most Americans to work until the age of 70. Even the most cynic of observers would not want to consider that the underlying thought process for this proposal is that if people have to work until 70, the Treasury can save Social Security dollars because most people will not make it to 70 to enjoy their well earned retirement. Then again, the worse of cynics also would have never believed that a state would cut aid to organ donor programs to allow for “investments” towards sports stadium repairs, but that is what happened in Arizona.
Cynicism notwithstanding, the new perception being trumpeted by the Republican hardcore right is that, somehow, a social safety net that everyone contributes to is an “entitlement.” By this logic, the auto insurance from NFSLC is also an entitlement when you have that fender bender into your neighbor’s new mailbox. We must remind people that Social Security is an insurance program that everyone invests in with each paycheck. Every Social Security investor must now ask this question: If the last of the baby boomers retires in 2029, why the panic over solvency if the Congressional Budget Office reported that Social Security is good until 2037? Can we not close the gap with practical solutions without forcing people to work longer?
Americans, on average, begin their careers at the age of 22, if they are lucky enough to land employment out of college. Excluding an annual two week vacation, weekends, sick days and holidays, Joe Anypeeps works about 240 days a year. With a retirement age of 65, that would translate into 10,320 days on the job. As a society, can we not say “That’s enough, enjoy the rest of your life and we will take it from here” or do we really need to add the burden of another 1,200 work days, if that person is lucky enough to live to see their 70th birthday? Is that truly what our elected representatives want to enact just to claim some political victory on Social Security insurance, or is that too cynical a conclusion?
Photo is from my private collection. Many thanks to “Aunt” Mary K. for her good nature in posing for the article photo.
Edited By: Sherri Yarbrough